March 9, 2016

Implications of Using Natural Materials In Your House

Natural versus “Manufactured” Material Finishes

These days the options available in terms of material finishes are virtually limitless and so it can be overwhelming at times.  There are more products available on the market today that are manufactured to look like something they are not, and in many cases they are very realistic.  However they are still not “natural” in the true sense.  There are also of course manufactured materials which were never intended to look like something from the natural environment, such as high gloss white cabinets or stainless steel or many of the contemporary porcelain tiles on the market these days.  There are pros and cons whether you opt for natural or manufactured (artificial) finishes & these are also very subjective ie. a benefit for one client or specific install situation may be seen as a drawback or compromise as far as another client or install scenario is considered.

For example … you may love the look of real wood and the somewhat random graining as well as the difference in tone / colour that often occurs with wood flooring, counters, stairs, cabinetry, etc. For some people this is seen as adding character to the home whereas for others this is a big negative as they want a very consistent & predictable look.  Neither is right or wrong … it is entirely down to what you prefer the look of.  However this does need to be factored in to what material finish choices you make.  Some wood species take stain more readily than others.  Some wood species are much harder (more dense) than others … case in point being why oak and maple are typically used for pre-made stair nosing & transitions because they are very hard wearing. Alder is also a good option, but usually has to be custom made specifically as it is pricier and not in such high demand.

Now of course it is possible to hand select materials in some cases, such as ensuring book-matching for grain across cabinet doors … but in many cases it really just depends on the particular tree from which the lumber came as to how it will absorb stain and what the grain pattern will be.  Rarely will 2 separate pieces of wood turn out exactly the same even when they are the same species.  Some wood species have more variation than others.  Some wood species have lots of knots and “imperfections” (such as rustic alder) whereas others are a little more predictable (e.g. birch plywood), but none the less the look is not something that has been determined so much by a manufacturing process but rather than by the natural environment in which it was formed.  Also specifically with wood, how dry the lumber is can be a big factor … and in some cases it can take many weeks to truly dry out to the point where it is ready to be finished.

Flooring is a prime example where the choice is often made between natural and manufactured … hardwood floors, versus engineered hardwood, versus laminate, versus carpet, versus tile, versus vinyl, versus cork, etc.  Within some of these there are differing degrees of “natural”.  Engineered hardwood has a thin top layer of real hardwood with an engineered core … this gives the structural integrity of an engineered product with the look and feel of real wood. Often engineered hardwood can be installed as a floating install over in-floor heating or a concrete subfloor & often (not always) it is at a lower price-point compared to real hardwood.  These days there is also porcelain tile which is designed to simulate the look of a hardwood floor.  It provides the durability of tile with a look that is somewhat close to that of hardwood, but again whether that is close enough is very subjective and down to personal taste … it seems to be a bit of a “Marmite” product; you either love it or hate it.  If you want the look of hardwood in a bathroom then it is a good choice.

Another very important factor when considering natural material finishes is to understand and accept that just because you looked at one sample does not mean that the whole install will be just like that.  If you are the type of individual that loves some element of random then go for it … however if you need predictability and a very consistent look either be extremely careful with the selections (wood species, etc) or stay away from natural finishes altogether.

It is always key whichever finishes you are opting for that you look at actual samples whenever possible.  Do not base your decisions entirely on what you see online (especially if the product in question has to marry up closely to another finish) unless again you are the type of person that is flexible with the actual look of the physical product & you have options to change other elements around it … we say this because these days you can order pretty much anything online, but bear in mind that how something appears on your smart phone, or computer screen may be quite different from on a screen with a different brightness & contrast, etc as well as how the lighting in your own home will affect the look.  We assist lots of our clients with 3D renderings with actual material selections to give them confidence in the final look, but again to stress this has limitations.

Variation between batches; even manufactured products (e.g. vinyl flooring, carpet, etc) can vary to some small degree between batches.  Any manufacturing process has tolerances and so tiny variations in settings used can result in some small degree of colour variation.  It is normally advisable to make sure to purchase extra of what you need just in case you need to do repairs at a later date and especially if you plan to continue with renovating additional rooms with the same product at a later date.

So what does “engineered” mean with regard to various materials / products?

IMG_1667Often you will hear mention of “engineered” flooring or “engineered panels” used in cabinetry.  With flooring and panels (sheet goods) of cabinetry material this basically means that there is a thin finished surface which is laminated (glued) to one or more layers which may have strands running in opposing directions to add strength & durability when under stress in certain directions.  Plywood, for example, is made this way so as to limit warping … which is why it makes for excellent cabinet boxes, drawer boxes, and cabinet shaker door recessed panels. Cabinetry grade plywood or other cabinetry sheet goods has a finished surface on either side with multiple layers in the middle for strength. Baltic birch plywood, for example, is a very high grade birch plywood that has very few voids in the core and so is often used where the layers of the plywood will be exposed (as opposed to covered with an edge banding).

With the particular TV cabinet shown here, the drawer boxes are made from birch plywood as are the slab drawer fronts which provides durability for something which will see a lot of use.

“Custom” … what does this really mean?


To us, “custom” means something which has been designed & built as a limited run for a specific purpose.  We do not mass produce kitchen cabinets in set sizes and then have clients figure out a layout from a pre-defined range of options.  However, we may produce some high volume components (such as drawer sides) ahead of time purely for the efficiency of operation.  Everything is spec’d & built to order for each project.  That isn’t to say we don’t build lots of the same size cabinet … for example, there are only so many kitchen sink sizes available and there are some typical standards used by the National Kitchen & Bath Association (such as all kitchen base cabinets are the same height & there is a standard depth), but the width of each cabinet & what the layout in terms of doors, drawers, pull-outs, etc is … well, that is down to each client.  And of course what the cabinets are built from (melamine, plywood, other engineered panels) and the door style & colour are also very specific.  This “adaptability” allows us to build upper cabinets in a variety of heights to minimize dead space at the top.

Another example of “custom” is with regard to countertops … every countertop is unique when you combine the material & the layout. They are fabricated to order for each project ie. custom-built.  Again with shower doors; in the majority of cases, our glass installer is working with a product that has been specifically cut from 10mm tempered glass for each specific purpose & the hardware as per client specs.

Fundamentally when it comes to introducing “custom” elements into your project it has to be understood that decisions, for the most part, need to be made ahead of time and any changes what-so-ever can be costly in some cases if specific materials have been ordered and/or items have already gone into production.  Just because something has not been installed does not mean it can be changed easily without significant expense.  That is not to say we cannot make changes, but there are usually cost implications as well as an impact to the project schedule of course.

So other than trying to stick to decisions made for the sake of the budget, what else does custom mean as far as the client is concerned?  Well, primarily it means options … lots and lots of options.  Specifically, with regard to cabinets, it often means being able to maximize every possible space, especially in a smaller kitchen.  In this example, we managed to use a 6″ space beside the stove as baking tray storage … space that would otherwise have been a blank filler.IMG_2913

It also means being able to match to existing colour schemes or existing cabinet styles.  It allows us to not only maximize the efficient use of space, but also there are fewer compromises in terms of the look … provided of course the budget is appropriate.  If you want Barbie pink cabinets we can do it … although that may be something you regret at a later date unless in a kid’s room 😉

In the majority of flooring installs, we fabricate our own transitions and this is also true with cabinetry crown moulding.

Anyway, I hope this information is in some way informative and useful when planning your next home renovation project & making some of the many decisions you will encounter.